Monday, October 18, 2010

There was a bear right there...

We spent most of our time in Yellowstone driving around looking at the animals that live in the park. The bison walk on the road and my sister is crazy about them so we saw lots of bison. At times they walked right beside the Suburban, their massive heads almost scraping the windows. We even saw one licking the bumper of the car in front of us. Never did figure out what you have to do to get that to happen, but it was a good threatening point with the kids. (Behave or we’ll smear you with peanut butter and tie you to the bumper!) It prompted the advent of the “peanut butter list.” (Mommy, am I on Aunt Julie’s peanut butter list?)

We also saw moose, coyote, mountain sheep, a black bear and some little spots I’m sure were wolves. Mom and Dad were locals and knew exactly where to go to see the “good animals.” At one point my brother-in-law went on point like a bird dog jumping out of the vehicle to see a mama grizzly and cubs. They were very far away – only visible through the binoculars and without his keen powers of observation we would have missed them. That was not true of the second grizzly bear.

It was our next to last day when we encountered the “bear jam,” a pile up of cars that usually meant a good animal sighting. I was sitting in the coveted shotgun seat. I’m shorter than everyone else in my family so I don’t get to sit in it often. We rolled down the window and a lady told us they had seen a grizzly bear, but it had walked off into the woods. By this point we were animal connoisseurs and didn’t stop for just anything. Besides the ranger was walking away from the bear jam and he wouldn’t be leaving if the bear was still there. The rangers are great at showing up when the bears do and protecting tourists from themselves.

We kept driving slowly; traffic wasn’t moving much. Eventually we pulled up beside the ranger and the bear was RIGHT THERE mere feet away. A huge grizzly bear was outside my window – my window. A man was eaten by a mother grizzly and her cubs a few weeks before we arrived in Yellowstone and my sister had read us excerpts of Death in Yellowstone. Grizzly bears are fast and unpredictable with really big teeth and claws. My mom handed me her camera to take pictures. I didn’t. I rolled up my window and tried to stay off of the peanut butter list. My family teased me mercilessly for being scared. I prefer to think of it as prudent, but I don’t think they will ever let me ride shotgun again.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

This is Yellowstone

My three sons and I along with my sister and her husband- God bless them, packed ourselves into the rented Suburban, left the Great Salt Lake and headed to Pocatello, Idaho. I was operating on two hours sleep and the residual adrenaline of getting myself, three carryon bags, three backpacks, a laptop bag, car seat and three small boys through airport security (Get your shoes back on now!) I admit I was not paying as much attention to the passing scenery as it deserved, but we were definitely not on the east coast any more. The beautiful countryside was dotted with fields made green by rolling irrigation systems all set against the backdrop of spectacular mountains.

We spent the night in Pocatello and woke up closer to human the next morning. After my sister pried my middle son away from his waffle we were off to meet Mom and Dad in Ashton, Idaho, the self proclaimed seed potato capitol of the world. The irrigated fields along the highway were covered with gorgeous green Hesston bales. Much larger than the square bales I’m used to, these bales were like Legos on steroids and were stacked uncovered in the fields. My sister asked the boys why the farmers could leave the bales uncovered (She’s worse than I am for never missing a chance to educate.) My oldest - never one to let a question pass without giving an answer – said it was because it didn’t rain much.

He’s right. Average rainfall in southern Idaho ranges from around 10 inches a year to just over 20 inches. Rainfall increases the closer you get to Yellowstone (a volcano-created valley funnels moisture to the park), but it is still less than half of what we normally get in southwest Virginia. The fields filled with nutritious hay and delicious potatoes would not grow without irrigation, and the animals and people they feed would be forced to look somewhere else.

One of my favorite freelance jobs was writing for In addition to the nice people I worked with, the part I liked best was researching the history of lakes across the country. So many of them started as reservoirs to irrigate crops and often the idea to divert water from area rivers went back to the time of the Spanish missionaries – people who saw the potential in the land if only there was just a little water. Irrigation has changed our rivers and our agriculture.

Some of the changes are obvious. When the Rio Grande runs dry before it hits Mexico, conservationists and Mexican farmers are right to question what we are doing with all the water. Those of us on the East Coast eating potatoes covered with butter made from milk given by cows fed on those beautiful hay bales need to be aware before we condemn. We are more connected than we realize.

My middle son wanted to be connected to his breakfast, but my sister was on a schedule. Turns out she was right to be concerned; Mom and Dad were early. When we pulled into Ashton my kids flew into their arms. It is one of my life’s true blessings to see how they love each other. We all missed them so much and having a week stretching in front of us to explore our Nation’s first national park was a bonus. Spending time together was the real treat.

I’m so proud of my mom and dad. Ignoring all the reasons why they shouldn’t, they left in July to go work in Yellowstone. It was one of the items on their bucket lists. They are having a real adventure together, but my sister and I can’t wait for them to come home.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Great Salt Lake

On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young and his flagging congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints reached what he declared to be the Promised Land. They found this.

The Great Salt Lake is glorious, striking, beautiful and fascinating, but welcoming it is not. I cannot imagine making the difficult journey from Illinois, watching loved ones sicken and die only to be told that this is where we were going to live.

Leftover from the pre-historic Lake Bonneville which stretched across more than 22,000 square miles during the last Ice Age, the Great Salt Lake is 75 miles long by 28 miles wide. It covers 1,700 square miles and has a maximum depth of 33 feet. The lake has no outlet; water only leaves by evaporation and with over 2.2 million tons of minerals flowing into the lake each year it is anything but fresh. Depending on evaporation the lake’s salinity is between four and 28 percent. As a frame of reference, the ocean is at three percent. Although it does support brine shrimp and birds, the water is too salty for fish. Algae thrive in the lake and it literally smells like brimstone.

We arrived at the Great Salt Lake the week after I covered the Heritage Harvest Festival for Lancaster Farming. The Festival, held on the grounds of Monticello, was a celebration of small local producers: artisan farmers and craftspeople who grew heirloom fruits and vegetable and made goat’s milk cheese and cider. It was lovely and the homemade donuts were the best I’ve ever eaten.

Standing on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, however, Buy Fresh Buy Local took on a whole new meaning. It is one thing to try to shorten food chains in central Virginia or in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where I grew up. But there are whole sections of the country where food for people does not easily grow. If we move to a local food system, who is going to feed those people?

Eventually, the Mormons thrived. I’m not sure that the same would be true for their contemporary counterparts. Given the number of people now living in the Salt Lake Valley, they better like brine shrimp.

The Great Salt Lake is extraordinary. I’d been there before, but every time I travel I am reminded of how magnificent our country and world is. Next stop – Yellowstone!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Button Jars

Faced with a long summer in a house full of boys, I started “button jars” for chores. I filled three blue mason jars with buttons left over from when my Grandma Lucas worked in the garment factory. Each boy got a pair of jars – one with buttons and a tag with their initial and one empty one with a tag where they wrote what they wanted to earn. The three year old wanted Buzz Lightyear Legos. The eight year old waffled between an incubator to clone dinosaurs and a remote control helicopter. My ten year old knew immediately he wanted a new bike.

All summer long the boys did chores to earn buttons and we watched one jar fill as the other jar emptied. The rallying cry around our house became “Mom, how many buttons is this worth?” The answers ranged from two buttons to “Just do it because I told you to!” There were hundreds of buttons in the jars and as the summer progressed the initial enthusiasm began to fade for everyone except the ten year old. He wanted that bike.

He helped around the house, fed and cared for the animals and worked alongside his daddy in the dirt and heat. He came in sweaty, filthy and sometimes exhausted. Every night after his shower he held out his hands to catch the buttons he’d earned that day.

Ever since he was a little boy, his daddy and I have had to remind each other that he is a kid. He has always been so grown up; when he does something childish, it catches me off guard. This summer with the button jars made it even harder to remember he’s a child. He worked like a man -albeit a young one -next to his daddy for long days in 100 degree heat. He did not complain. He was enthusiastic and a joy to have around, and he earned his buttons.

On Wednesday he dropped the last two buttons into his jar, and on Friday his bike was waiting for him when he got home from school. I am so proud of him and so impressed with his determination. Much more important, however, he is proud of himself, and he’s learned how good it feels to have something you worked hard to get.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

There But for the Grace of God Go I

Recently one of the lead stories on the local eleven o’clock news was about a woman who was being charged with animal cruelty because police found her with a goat in her trunk. It turns out the woman was stopped at a routine DUI checkpoint and the police officer heard bumping coming from her trunk. He opened the trunk and found a billie goat tied up with its rear end stuffed in a black plastic garbage bag. Admittedly the trunk was probably dangerously hot (94 degrees after 10 minutes open the officer said,) and animal cruelty is never justified, but I could be this woman. I feel for this woman who is now going to trial for one count of animal cruelty.

Billie goats are hard to love. Usually I’m a big fan of learning new things and I’m not generally squeamish, but I find myself ill equipped to describe the physiology of male goats. It is not from lack of research. I spent hours I will never get back reading veterinarian’s descriptions of billie goat anatomy. There is a reason “horny old goat” is an insult and demons are described as having “goat slit eyes.” Billie goats are vile. Their penises can extend over ten inches and curve towards their heads – a fact my sons find fascinating. They consider their own urine to be both aftershave (applied liberally) and aperitif. If you want to know more by all means look it up, but never ever type goat penis in the search engine block while the children are around. Enough said.

We have a billie goat named Camo. My husband brought him and his two half sisters home when they were adorable kids. They followed the boys around and were generally cute. Then they grew up. The does are still sweet tempered and lovable, but Camo turned into a stinky beast. When I go to the barn to feed them I leave smelling like billie goat and wishing there was a way I could explain to Camo that I don’t like him like that.

The lady who was arrested said she was driving the billie goat to a nearby city where the four men riding in the car with her were going to keep it as a pet. Seriously. Regardless of the implausibility of her explanation I know this is one of those “there but for the grace of God go I moments.” On any given day if someone was willing to take my billie goat I would stuff him in the trunk and take him to them. I would wrap his back end in a black plastic trash bag so he didn’t spray everything with Eau de Goat and I would drive like the wind. It wouldn’t make me a good person, but after being butted and molested one time too many, I would do it. I hope the judge in her case has some experience with billie goats.

My husband and sons sold Camo, a little buck and an old doe at the neighbor’s livestock auction. Apparently goats are a hot commodity. The boys took some of the proceeds to buy Terrain Titans which now zip endlessly around our home. We are all happier and no goats were harmed.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Driveway Chicken Had Chicks

I should preface that statement by explaining why we have a driveway chicken. A few years ago my husband built me the Taj Mahal of chicken coops and we’ve raised chickens on and off ever since. Last spring we started over with a fresh batch of chicks. I honestly don’t know the breed. They were the leftovers at Tractor Supply, and the man who sold them to me wasn’t sure what kind they were. We have also inherited a handful of chickens, mostly Arucanas, from friends who were moving and a rooster from another friend who had too many. More than one rooster is too many, but because I live with a husband and three sons - all of whom I adore – I try to keep that opinion to myself.

The purchased and gifted chickens total between 15 and 25 hens. The range is so high because at any given time said hens can be found roaming in the goat yard, visiting our unendingly patient neighbors or strolling up and down the driveway scratching for bugs. Only a few ever stay in the coop. My chickens stretch the definition of “free range,” and as a result the boys and I gather eggs from under the riding lawn mowers, beneath a blue tub and even occasionally on the seat of the bobcat - rarely do the hens actually lay their eggs in the chicken coop.

My husband pointed out that if I clipped the hen’s wings they would have to stay in the chicken yard, and I wouldn’t have to have an egg hunt everyday. My eight year old loves chickens and looks for any excuse he can to catch them and hold them, so I enlisted his help clipping the chicken’s wings. Not content to do a halfway job, we meticulously clipped the ends of both wings of every chicken. We were almost finished and feeling like good farmers when my irritatingly amused husband said that we should only have clipped one wing so the chickens couldn’t fly. I said that unless he was in the chicken coop working with us he should keep his opinion to himself. As much as it pains me to admit it, however, he was right. With both wings clipped the hens can’t fly as well, but they can fly over the fence bringing me back to the driveway chicken.

We have a pretty black hen with buff feathers around her neck who spends almost all her time scratching up and down the driveway. One day she went missing and as her absence continued I worried that something had eaten her or that she had run away for good. A few weeks went by and I had forgotten about the little black hen, when I went out one morning and found her resuming her normal place at the edges of the driveway. Now, however, she was followed by five fluffy chicks scratching beside her. I squealed like a little girl and the chicks darted under the hen. She puffed up to twice her size and did the chicken equivalent of growling.

My boys instantly fell in love with the chicks and tried desperately to catch them. For future reference it is not necessary to tell children they can’t catch chicks. The mother hen will take care of that, and it took only a few pecked hands before the boys were content to watch the chicks from a safe distance. Protecting her chicks is just the last part of a hen’s mothering cycle, one that would put most of the rest of us to shame.

I don’t know why a hen “goes broody,” but when it happens, it is a ferocious instinct. When a hen decides she wants to be a mother she will sit on a clutch of eggs with trance-like devotion, and she won’t move until she has chicks. She will sit on her own eggs, other chicken eggs, and even eggs from other fowl rising once a day to eat, drink and relieve herself. She will stay there for the 21 days it takes for the chicks to hatch, turning the eggs and warming them with her body. If at any point she decides she doesn’t want the job and leaves, the chicks won’t hatch. A mother hen has to concretely demonstrate her commitment to motherhood before she is rewarded with chicks. Some breeds are much better at this than others, but when a breed of chickens fails at being broody it is generally because we have genetically selected against broodiness (We raise chickens for eggs and broody hens don’t lay.) Heritage breeds are usually better mothers, and some chickens never seem to want the job. As far as I can tell the other chickens don’t try to make them feel like less of a chicken for this choice.

Being a competent parent is really difficult, and sex feels really good. Perhaps it would be better if the two things weren’t so intimately connected. After a rooster and hen mate the hen can store the sperm for over two weeks and all the eggs she lays after that will be fertilized with the potential for producing chicks. If you buy your eggs from the farmers market, you are in all likelihood eating fertilized eggs. Many people with small flocks keep a rooster, and if a rooster is in with the hens they copulate wantonly. Wouldn’t you? And while all that chicken love results in the potential for offspring, nothing happens without a broody hen. There are no morning after pills for chickens. If a hen doesn’t want chicks she doesn’t sit. If she does she sits whether she produced the eggs or not.

If human reproduction was more like chickens and parents had to prove their ability and commitment to putting their offspring first before they could have them this would be a different world. There would be no unwanted children because in order for the child to exist someone would have to have wanted him or her desperately. My childless friends wouldn’t have to wonder at the unfairness of pregnant 16 year olds when they are having trouble conceiving using expensive fertility treatments. Teenagers wouldn’t face impossibly difficult choices simply because they did what many of us have done (had premarital sex) and got caught.

I’m not advocating irresponsible sex. There have always been sexually transmitted diseases with dire consequences including fatality. But for those of us in committed, monogamous relationships, it would be nice to enjoy sex without the niggling “what if” in the back of your head. As somebody who has had birth control fail more than once (with blessed outcomes) I can tell you that the best sex I have had happened after I had my tubes tied. In one of Robert Heinlein’s novels, he wrote that when making love a woman wants to lay back and secretly hope she “catches.” I can’t help but think that was written by someone who was not woken bleary eyed for the fourth time by a hungry / wet / colicky/ normal infant. For most of us, I think passion is best flamed by keeping sex and pregnancy separate, excluding of course the few weeks or months in your life when you are actually trying to become pregnant. One of my male friends described that as being given a basket full of tickets for the fair rides. I would humbly argue that when it comes to reproduction, chickens have the right of it.

After the driveway chicken hatched her chicks, one of the barn chickens hatched six of her own. I have another hen sitting on eggs where the riding mower usually lives. I am in awe of these feathered ladies. I love my children and did all the things I was supposed to do while I was pregnant including in my case avoiding French fries and cookies. I even spent the last part of my third pregnancy on modified bed rest. I don’t know, however, if I could live up to the chicken’s standards. A mother hen’s capacity for selflessness is beyond me.